Her opponent's flailing hand connected with the bridge of her nose and Emilia Cruz Encinos heard the snap before she felt the pain. Her eyes watered and her muscles screamed as she twisted just enough to protect her face by pushing it into the mat.
Montez was at least 20 kilos more than Emilia but he carried too much of it in his middle. She knew he was tired and desperate. They'd each had four fights that day, slowly eliminating the other competitors. It was simple hand-to-hand fighting with few rules except to make an opponent tap the mat in surrender. Montez had opened the fight by trying to pull off her shirt, as had another male competitor earlier in the day. Both had been defeated by a combination of rubbery fabric, her heavy sports bra, and Emilia's fist.
Both Emilia and Montez were slippery with sweat. He arched his body, trying to break her chokehold or shake off the legs wrapped around his. Somehow Emilia managed to crank up the pressure on his throat while keeping his lower half pinned.
I'm a beast. A beast. The words circled inside her head. The voice of the referee and the shouts of the other cops in the gymnasium merged into an indistinguishable background roar.
Montez's hand slapped wildly, trying to find Emilia's face again. For a scary moment she thought he'd latched onto her hair, which was tightly pulled into a single braid and clamped to her head with a steel barrette, but he only succeeded in banging her head against the mat. Bloody snot gushed out of her nose and Emilia heard herself gasp for air around her mouth guard.
The crook of her elbow was a vice around his neck, cranked ever tighter by the leverage of her other hand. Montez convulsed then rolled sideways, trying to break her hold with dead weight. Emilia held on. Her whole world was this moment, this stinking mat, this steel beast that she'd become.
But her vision was beginning to darken, there wasn't enough air and the roaring was a wave threatening to pull her under. It surged with hot hands, prying her arms apart but she was a beast, a fucking beast and she was going to--.
"Prima, let go." Her cousin Alvaro's voice cut through the wave and the roar and the mantra in her head. "You're killing him!"
The hands dragged her upright. Emilia stumbled like a drunken borracho, leg muscles quivering, and Alvaro grabbed her around the waist. The ring was full of people, including Alvaro who'd acted as her coach and Montez's friend who been in his corner all day. The police doctor and two another men she didn't recognize were bent over Montez lying prone on the mat. Beyond the ropes, at least 100 cops filled the gymnasium in Acapulco's central police building, most of them on their feet and shouting.
"You couldn't just let him tap out, prima?" Alvaro asked, his mouth close to her ear. He shoved a wet cloth against her face as he pulled her to her corner. "You had to choke him out?"
Emilia wiped her face then spit her mouth guard into her hand. Bloody saliva clung to the bloody tape that protected both hands. She rinsed her mouth and then the referee motioned her to the middle of the ring. Montez was up on his feet. Sweat ran down his bare chest and he looked dazed.
The gymnasium quieted.
"The winner of the final elimination round in the detective competition." The referee sounded more than a little stunned. He grabbed Emilia's wrist and lifted her arm over her head. "By a knockout. Cruz Encinos."
There was a smatter of applause.
And then there was silence.
By Monday, the broken nose hardly hurt at all, although Emilia still looked like she was wearing purple goggles from the two black eyes that went along with it. She hauled out her vest with POLICIA stenciled across the back and closed her locker door. Alma Rosa shut her own locker and the two women stared at each other for a long moment.
"Congratulations," Alma Rosa said. She put her vest down on the bench.
Emilia nodded. "Thanks."
Alma Rosa had been her second fight on Saturday. Emilia had forced the smaller women to tap out in less than 30 seconds. The short fight meant that Emilia was still relatively fresh by the time she came up against Montez.
"No hard feelings," Alma Rosa said. She held out her hand. "You won it fair. I never would have gotten past Montez."
Emilia took her hand then pulled the other woman into an embrace. There weren't that many female cops and even fewer good ones. Alma Rosa fell into that small group.
They picked up their vests and headed out of the locker room.
Emilia turned to see Montez charging down the hall. Alma Rosa grimaced and continued into the briefing room where at the beginning of every shift the roll was taken, assignments handed out, weapons were issued, and cops patted down to make sure they weren't carrying anything that they could use to strike a deal with gang members or cartel sicarios.
"What are you doing here, Montez?" Emilia asked. She'd learned a little about each of the other cops who'd scored high enough on the detective's exam to move to the hand-to-hand competition. Montez had a desk job in the administration building. Emilia's station on the east side of Acapulco was foreign territory for him.
He lifted a black metal briefcase. "Courier duty," he said. "But I was hoping to run into you. What the fuck was going on with you on Saturday?"
"Sorry," Emilia said. "I didn't realize you'd tapped out."
He didn't look much the worse for wear; he was about her age, skin slightly pockmarked, short hair slicked back from a low forehead.
"I didn't tap out," Montez said, jamming himself in front of Emilia. "You were supposed to let up."
Emilia blinked in surprise. "I was just supposed to let you win?"
Montez forced Emilia up against the wall. "They're never going to give you that job. You should have let me take the competition so at least somebody could make detective this year. Now everybody's screwed."
"I got the highest score on the detective exam," Emilia said, her voice taut as the blood pounded in her ears. "I won the hand-to-hand. So back off. Unless you want a rematch. Right here, right now."
The door to the briefing room swung open and Sergeant Orozco stepped into the hallway, clipboard in hand.
"Cruz," he said abruptly. "Need to speak with you."
"Excuse me, mi sargento," Montez said and rapidly walked away.
"You're out of uniform, Cruz," Sergeant Orozco said. One of the oldest uniformed cops, he had leathery skin and dark, deep set eyes.
Emilia got her breathing under control and looked down at herself. She had on the uniform blue shirt, darker blue pants, and gun belt that she'd worn six days a week for nearly ten years.
"You're not going on shift looking like that," el sargento went on. He pointed two fingers at her face but didn't make eye contact. "Three days suspension without pay."
Emilia caught herself before she asked if that's how much he'd lost betting on Montez.
Alvaro had warned her. A uniformed cop himself, Alvaro had helped her join the force and been her guide through the early years. They'd talked about what she could expect if she tried to become a detective. Who would sabotage her attempt or take punitive action if she succeeded.
Even so, three days' worth of salary was a serious loss and she felt it like a blow to the head. What made it worse was that she hadn't expected the blow to come from Sergeant Orozco. Montez, sure, but el sargento had signed the supervisory recommendation required to take the detective exam. He'd even congratulated her first place score.
"On Thursday report to Lieutenant Inocente in the detectives unit," Sergeant Orozco said. "Other building. I'm sending your file over today."
Emilia nodded once. Back in the locker room she shucked off her uniform, put on her jeans and tee shirt, breathing fast through her mouth, eyes burning, refusing to cry.
Emilia presented herself at the small station on the west side of Acapulco, where the city wrapped around the lip of the bay at Playa Caleta and the divers put on their shows at La Quebrada. She didn't wear her uniform, just jeans, a black tee, and the short leather jacket that had taken six months of diligent savings to buy. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail and a careful makeup job concealed the last bruises around her eyes, now faded to the color of premium tequila.
The sergeant behind the dispatch desk scrutinized her badge when she pressed it against the bulletproof glass. He hit the intercom. "You're Cruz?" he asked, his voice artificially metallic.
When he said her name three other uniforms came out of a back room and stared at her through the thick glass.
It was like bring a fish on the wrong side of the aquarium. "Here to see Lieutenant Inocente," Emilia said, replacing her badge on its lanyard around her neck.
"I heard you was bigger," one of the uniforms said.
Emilia tried a wry smile.
"Down the hall," the sergeant said. "Detectives unit. His office is through the squadroom."
The heavy metal door buzzed. The latch popped and Emilia pulled the door open. She followed the sounds of arguing down the hall and into the detectives squadroom.
It wasn't a glamorous place, just a large open area with the same gray metal desks, green filing cabinets, and big wall boards covered with photographs and memos that she'd seen in other Acapulco police unit offices. But this place represented the top of her career path, the place where she'd put "Detective" in front of her name.
The place where her salary would double.
She crossed the room to the office door at the far end, getting some obvious and appraising looks from the half dozen men there. They all wore shoulder holsters and had their own computer. Emilia didn't know any of them, which wasn't surprising. Detectives maintained a very low profile to avoid being targeted by the cartels operating up and down Mexico's Pacific coast.
Lieutenant Inocente was a fit thirtysomething with a moustache. His office was almost sterile, as if he didn't plan on being there long. "Let me see your file," he said. He made an impatient give-it-here gesture across the desk.
He hadn't invited her to sit down, said welcome to the club or made any other greeting.
"Sergeant Orozco sent it over on Monday," Emilia said.
Lieutenant Inocente rolled his eyes. "It'll be in Records, then," he said. "Right out of the squadroom, past the holding cells. Ask for Fabiola." He turned his attention to a file folder on his desk, effectively dismissing her.
Emilia again ran the gauntlet of appraising eyes. The uniforms at the holding cells made kissing noises as she passed. Obviously the sergeant behind the bulletproof glass had let everyone in the station know that the new detective was there.
Supplicants to the records department were kept at bay by means of a counter running the width of the room. The counter was at least a meter wide, meaning few could reach over it. Beyond the counter there were three desks. At the rear of the space metal shelves stretched to the ceiling, all jammed with file folders of varying thicknesses.
Fabiola was twice Emilia's age, with a greying perm, glasses on a string around her neck and a mouth that twisted in disapproval when Emilia identified herself. The woman folded thick arms as she stood well back from the counter. "We don't keep personnel files here in Records," she said.
"Sergeant Orozco sent it over on Monday," Emilia pressed. "For Lieutenant Inocente."
"Maybe Lieutenant Inocente didn't need it," Fabiola said evenly.
"Could you check?" Emilia asked, ignoring the woman's implication.
Fabiola sniffed. "Come back in 15 minutes," she said.
It was the classic Mexican brush-off. Nothing would change in 15 minutes and both of them knew it.
"It looks like my file's been lost in transit somehow," Emilia said to Lieutenant Inocente ten minutes later. "If you need it today, I can go run it down. But first I'd like to talk with you about the job."
Lieutenant Inocente leaned back in his chair. As before, he hadn't invited her to sit so Emilia stayed standing in front of his desk. "Cruz," he said. "I've heard that you did everything by the book. Outstanding patrol record. Got a real nice recommendation from your sergeant. Highest grade on the exam. Won the hand-to-hand." He ran a finger over his moustache. "But the detective unit is a tight-knit group. Can't say that you're a good fit."
"Let me assure you, teniente," Emilia said. "I'm a team player. I will be giving this job my best effort."
Lieutenant Inocente slowly sat upright. "Let me put this in a way you'll understand, Cruz," he said. "Unless one of my detectives steps up and says they'll take you on as a partner, you just wasted a lot of time and energy going after this job."
Emilia felt a rush of anger. "That wasn't a criteria last year," she pointed out. "Or the year before. Or any year."
"You're not last year," Lieutenant Inocente said.
He got out of his chair and walked past her into the squadroom. Emilia followed.
"This is Cruz Encinos," Lieutenant Inocente said. "You've all heard she's the detective candidate from the ranks this year. If one of you wants to partner with her, she'll be joining the squadroom." He looked around and the words if not hung in the air. He shifted his eyes to his watch. "She'll be in Interrogation 1 for the next hour. Anybody who wants a new partner can go fix it up with her."
The cinderblock walls of the windowless interrogation room had once been white. Even with the door open the ripe odor of fear and unwashed bodies thickened the air. She wondered how many brutal confessions or conveniently forgotten suspects the room had seen.
Emilia checked her watch. Thirty minutes had ticked by as she alternatively paced or stood in the doorway, staring down the hall at the holding cell guards. When one of the guards had asked what she was doing there, she'd just said "Special assignment" and shot him with her thumb and forefinger.
There was no two-way mirror so she knew Lieutenant Inocente wasn't looking at her, but not sitting down at the battered wooden table was a matter of pride. She wasn't some criminal brought in for questioning. Besides, there was too much fury and humiliation coursing through her system to sit even if she'd wanted to.
Five minutes were left in the hour when a heavyset man came down the hall. He was in his early thirties, maybe five or six years older than her, wearing a leather jacket and holding a pair of expensive sunglasses.
He came into the room, closed the door and stuck out a beefy hand. "Rico Portillo," he said.
Emilia shook hands, glad that he didn't start a squeeze contest as many male cops did. "Emilia Cruz Encinos."
"Yeah, sure." Portillo ambled around the room, clearly uncomfortable, and stopped when the table was between him and Emilia. "I hear you're looking to become a detective," he said.
"I'd really like a shot at this," Emilia heard herself say. "I'm a hard worker. I don't give up. You don't throw me under the bus, I won't throw you, either."
"Yeah." Portillo didn't say anything else, just fiddled with his sunglasses. After a moment he scratched his head. "The thing is," he said finally. "Right now I'm stuck with Gomez. He's dumb as wood. Dumb enough to get me killed one of these days."
"I got the highest score on the detective exam," Emilia said.
Portillo scratched his head again.
Emilia held her breath.
"You gonna turn around in three months and tell me that you're pregnant?" Portillo asked.
The air went out of Emilia all at once. "No," she said stiffly.
"You got a man?" Portillo asked. "You know, regular?"
"I'm not going to sleep with you," Emilia snapped. "If that's what you're asking."
"Hey." Portillo raised his hands in mock surrender. "Can't blame me for asking. You're no dog, you know."
"Is that why you came in here?" Suddenly Emilia was done pushing and cajoling and fighting to get this job and everything it represented. If her only chance to make detective was teaming up with a dirty cop, she couldn't do it. "Just to see if you could get a good fuck out of it? Is that the kind of cop you are? The kind that's in it to see what they can score?"
Portillo pocketed his sunglasses and planted his hands on the scarred tabletop. The awkwardness was gone and she wondered if it had been an act; a barrier while he assessed her. "I became a cop because this city is fucked up," he said. "The soul of this place is being eaten alive by the cartels and the crooks. Those of us who can need to pitch in and clean it up."
"The soul of this place," Emilia repeated, unconvinced. "Did you make that up yourself?"
"No." Portillo straightened, reached under his jacket and pulled out a manila folder. He slapped it down on the table.
Emilia saw her name printed on the label, followed by her police identification number.
"It was in your personnel file," Portillo said. "End of your exam essay."
Acapulco Chief of Police Enrique Salazar Robelo moved down the line of those being promoted. His assistant Lieutenant Morales held out the framed certificate of the next officer. Castro Cardoza, being promoted to Captain.
Salazar shook Castro's hand. They chatted, Salazar holding Castro's handshake in both of his own for a moment of genuine congratulations. Salazar then took the heavy certificate from Morales and handed it to Castro. The official photographer snapped several pictures as the audience in the large auditorium applauded. Next Morales handed Salazar the captain's badge and Castro ceremoniously exchanged it for his old lieutenant's badge. The captain's badge was more ornate, with Acapulco's seal of a hand holding stalks of wheat enameled in color. The photographer took a few more pictures.
Salazar stepped to the next officer being promoted. Rocha Zelaya. Promoted to lieutenant. New assignment as liaison to the head of the police union for the state of Guerrero. "Vaya con Dios," Salazar said as he extended his hand to Rocha. The union was a snake pit and Rocha would need all the help he could get.
The last officer standing in the line on the stage was Cruz Encinos.
"I expect it had to happen sometime," Salazar said, forcing himself to smile. "First female detective in Acapulco. Congratulations."
"Thank you, sir," she said.
He gave her the heavy certificate. There was scattered applause as they traded her patrol officer's shield for the new detective badge.
"I won't let Acapulco down," Cruz said and held out her hand.
Salazar pressed his lips together and shook her hand in a way meant to demonstrate his views on her promotion.
Her grip matched his. Surprised, he let go first.
She was a pretty thing, looking like a recruiting poster in her dress uniform, but obviously the stories were true. The woman was a beast.
The photographer snapped away, recording the historic moment.